Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

A cold coming

Although England has thousands of churches dating from the Middle Ages, very few of them have more than a handful of fragments of medieval stained glass. The few places where there are substantial amounts of medieval glass – such as York Minster and the parish church of Fairford in Gloucestershire – are famous. One of the less well known places to admire the art of the Gothic glaziers is Malvern Priory.

The 15th-century stained glass in this building is some of the best English medieval glass to have survived. We do not know who made it, but similarities have been spotted with one of the windows in York Minster, the work of a glazier called John Thornton of Coventry. Whoever created the Malvern windows, they are the work of a master.

This Adoration of the Magi is one scene from the collection. It is a good example technically because it shows the way the 15th-century glaziers used lots of pale glass, so that plenty of sunlight got into the building, but highlighted these areas with rich accents of more deeply coloured glass, especially red and blue.

Mary sits with the Christ child on her lap and one of the kings, dressed in a rich red, fur-trimmed mantle over a blue tunic, kneels before them. He has removed his crown, which lies on the ground at the Virgin’s feet, and has taken off the lid of the cup he carries, revealing his to be the gift of gold. The infant Jesus reaches out for the gift with his left hand while raising his right in blessing. Behind, the other two Magi wait their turn, one in the act of removing his crown, the other raising his left hand. Joseph stands behind Mary and the thatched roof of the stable and the distant towers of a city make up the background. Shining with irregular rays that suggest its twinkling, the star completes the composition.

There is so much in this image, so many details that engage the viewer and encourage one to look for more. The faces, the interesting forms of the headgear of the Magi; the different-shaped vessels in which they bring their gifts; the way in which a cross has been concealed in the detail of the stable roof covering; the ermine trimming of many of the garments; the architecture of the distant city – all these are details to ponder in this moving depiction of a familiar subject, one that takes us straight back to the medieval world.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Angel Choir

Lincoln is my favourite of all the English cathedrals – for its stunning hill-top setting (a site equalled only by that of Durham cathedral), its graceful silhouette, and its absorbing Gothic interior so packed with detail that there’s always something new to see no matter how often one visits. Much of the cathedral was built in the late-12th and early-13th centuries after the previous building had been severely damaged in an earthquake. The rebuilding took place under the auspices of a dynamic bishop, Hugh, now known as St Hugh of Avalon (Avalon being near Grenoble, where Hugh, who spent his early years as a Carthusian monk, was born). Between 1255 and 1280 there was another building campaign, this time extending the cathedral beyond the high altar to make a new east end, with space for a shrine containing the remains of the now canonized Hugh. This new space is known as the Angel Choir and is the part of the cathedral in the photograph above.

The Angel Choir is one of the most beautiful spaces in all architecture. Its proportions are very English – wide but not too high (a French cathedral would be higher in proportion to its width). The window tracery, with its geometrical patterns, is stunning. But the space gets its effect mainly from three other aspects of the design – the use of different coloured stones (light limestone contrasting with dark Purbeck marble), the linear rhythms set up by the multitude of vertical shafts and the mouldings of the arches, and the rich carved decoration (on the capitals, on corbels, up the sides of the windows, in the blind arcading beneath the windows, and elsewhere).

The angels that give the choir its name, incidentally, are high up, carved in the spandrels of the triforium arches – the row of small arches that look like dark unglazed windows above the main arcade. These angels are barely visible in the photograph, which, although grainy and from an old book, is better than any photograph I’ve taken of the place because it highlights the differing tones of the stonework and reproduces, as in all the best Gothic architecture, the magical play of light.

A footnote. My affection for Lincoln Cathedral is musical as well as architectural, because in the 16th century the great English composer William Byrd was organist there. Byrd wrote and published much music for the Anglican church, music that would have been heard in buildings such as Lincoln Cathedral. But he was himself a Catholic, and perhaps his most sublime works are settings of the text of the Mass that would have been sung by small gatherings of Catholics worshipping behind closed doors at a time when to follow the old faith was to risk persecution.

This performance of the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass in Five Parts is by the Tallis Scholars, stellar performers of Renaissance choral music. The text ends, ‘Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem’. Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Amen. And happy Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bishopsgate, London

Stop and research

My photograph shows part of the façade of the Bishopsgate Institute in London. This building, opened in 1895, provides educational facilities including courses and a library and was but one of many institutes set up in this period by charities and communities to fulfil cultural and educational aims – in the words of the Institute’s website, ‘for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions, and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts’. The Institute is fortunate to be housed a stunner of a building, one of three major buildings in London (the others are the Whitechapel Art Gallery and South London’s excellent Horniman Museum) designed by the great turn-of-the-century architect Charles Harrison Townsend.

Townsend’s work, as is widely acknowledged, combines wonderfully the traditional values of the Arts and Crafts movement with the decorative flair of Art Nouveau. That decorative element is shown in the ornament on the Bishopsgate façade, created by architectural sculptor William Aumonier. There is an additional influence on Townsend’s style (noticed by the authors of the revised Pevsner volume on the City of London) – the work of the great American architects of the late-19th century, especially Henry Hobson Richardson. That generous entrance arch is a very Richardsonian touch.

I especially wanted to share the decoration on this building, but standing on the opposite side of Bishopsgate pointing my camera at it reminded me of something else. Back in 2004, when Peter Ashley and I were doing preliminary work on The English Buildings Book (see right), I asked Peter to take a photograph of the striking police station up the street from the Institute. This simple, but perhaps naïve, request led Peter into a long and rather sticky ‘conversation’ with the police: ‘You nearly got me arrested,’ he said to me the next day.

This all came back to me the other day when I read in the paper complaints by photographers who had been stopped and questioned for photographing apparently much less sensitive buildings in London (for example, St Paul’s Cathedral, another Wren church, a fish and chip shop, and 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin). It made me think that the authorities are taking things rather too far if photographers – professional or amateur – cannot stand outside a building in London and aim their camera at it without being questioned and, in some cases, required to delete from their memory cards the images they have made.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that the police need to go about their business, and part of that business includes measures to combat terrorism. As someone who knew one of the victims of the London bombings of July 2005 this is very much in my mind. But we also need to preserve the freedoms that terrorists would take away from us, and one of those freedoms, a significant one I’d argue, is to be able to stop, and look, and take photographs of our glorious built environment – and disseminate the resulting images and the fruits of our research for educational and cultural purposes. The founders of the Bishopsgate Institute would, I hope, have agreed with that.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ten of the best

English Buildings has been going for nearly two and a half years now and has attracted many regular readers. Most of you found this blog part-way through its history, so I thought I would create a way for you to catch up with some previous posts. Enter my Ten of the Best feature. In the side-bar to the right you will find a list of ten posts on particular aspects of English Buildings. The first list is on the theme of small buildings and covers a varied and occasionally bizarre assortment of structures from an unusual bridge to a miniature building designed to house bees. Look out for more lists on other themes in coming months.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Bradford in Cheltenham

This is almost all that remains of the premises of the Cheltenham Original Brewing Company, which brewed beer in the centre of Cheltenham for nearly 240 years. The site is now a ‘retail and entertainment experience’, I’m afraid.

The Agg-Gardner family began brewing in Cheltenham in 1760, and the brewery in the centre of the town belonged to Sir James Agg-Gardner in 1888 when the Cheltenham Original Brewing Company was formed to manage the business. By this time the malthouse (below), the oldest building on the site and probably built in the 1860s, was already there and the brewery buildings were to the north of it. But on a summer Sunday morning in 1897 a fire started in the hop room and swept through the brewery, destroying most of the complex. The architect William Bradford (who may also have designed the malthouse) was called in to design a replacement. Brewing continued on the site for a further century, with the business eventually passing to Whitbread’s.

William Bradford was the doyen of Victorian brewery architects. He was famous for ornate designs amongst which perhaps the best examples are the Hook Norton Brewery and the Bridge Wharf Brewery at Lewes (for Harvey’s) – elaborate fantasies of multi-coloured bricks and curvaceous ironwork featuring towers that are both eyecatching and functional. By this stage in his career, however, his designs tended to be more restrained, and at Cheltenham his priorities were different. He was careful to specify fireproof construction, with the floors separated by concrete arches, for the new Cheltenham brewery – no doubt his clients were keen on this feature too.

Most of Bradford’s 1898 structure has now gone but the developers kept his tower, with its fancy ironwork. And the malthouse, with its polychrome brick walls, remains too. Low down at pavement level is a metal plate embossed with the deathless words, ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’, presumably addressed to those who had imbibed the brewery’s products too freely.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire

Smoke-filled rooms

Today many people would say that the most important room in their house was the kitchen – the place where food is cooked and, often, eaten; where the family gathers; where it is always warm. For many, the kitchen is the social centre and heart of the house. In some houses it’s an economic centre, too – I’ve known business people who hold meetings in their kitchens, and a farmhouse kitchen can be the chosen meeting place for the farmer’s family, the farm workers – and often anyone who happens to be passing.

It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that many medieval houses didn’t have a kitchen as such. Outside the grandest of houses (and specialized buildings such as monasteries and colleges), most people lived in one, all-purpose room. This open space, known as the hall, was kitchen, dining room, office, workroom, and bedroom rolled into one. There was a central hearth for heating and cooking, and trestle tables at which to eat. Come night-time, the tables were taken down or pushed aside, and people lay down to sleep on mattresses on the floor. More prosperous households managed a private room (the solar) for the head of the household and his wife, but much of the life of the household still revolved around the communal hall.

With its central hearth, the medieval hall was the archetypal smoke-filled room – there was no chimney so the smoke from the fire had to find its way through a hole in the roof high above everyone’s heads. People seem to have got used to the smoke, no doubt learning to control it by opening and closing the room’s doors to create the right kind of draught.

In a few houses, where food was produced on a large scale, there was another smoke-filled room, a separate kitchen reserved just for cooking. These dedicated kitchens were not very common, and few survive today. This is the one at the manor house at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, and it probably survives because the family decamped for another village in the 18th century, demolishing much of their old house but leaving some of it in place but unmodernized.

The kitchen was probably first built in the 14th century, and reroofed and given new windows in the 15th. Inside, fires were made against one wall, where spits turned to roast meat; there are also three ovens. As with the more common medieval halls, there was no chimney – the smoke rose to the ceiling where it exited through holes beneath the roof. Above all this is a cat’s cradle of timbers supporting the octagonal pointed roof, the whole thing topped off with a griffin made of lead.

The servants at Stanton Harcourt no doubt got used to the smoke, but it surprised one famous guest, the poet Alexander Pope, who stayed at Stanton Harcourt in 1717–18 while translating the Iliad. With Classical mythology very much on his mind, Pope compared the kitchen to Vulcan’s forge or the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. A dark cave of creation, then, closer to Homer’s world than Pope’s, and miraculously preserved into our own.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Desirable alien (2)

In contrast to the British ‘alien’ of a few posts back, my other urban invader really is from overseas. It began life, of course, in China, and was donated to the city by the Wing Yip Company (Britain’s foremost Chinese grocer) in 1998 as a ‘thank you’ to Birmingham, the place where its business became prosperous. It enlivens a roundabout in the city’s inner ring road.

The Chinese pagoda was carved in Fujian. The granite structure was then shipped to Britain in sections and the whole thing was assembled on site. At 40 feet high, it is impressive, and, unlike the Pevsner City Guide to Birmingham, which finds it ‘gloomy’, I think it cheers up its busy roundabout. It makes is effect in spite of being dwarfed by the tall office and hotel buildings that cluster hereabouts, especially the partly pale blue Beetham Tower which, with its 36 storeys faced in glass panels, is something of an alien presence itself.

I like the way our cities can throw up such surprising bits of decoration – surprising, but not entirely random, because the pagoda stands near the city’s Chinese quarter. It’s good that even places that have been so busily modernized and remodernized as Birmingham continue to make us raise our eyebrows in this way. And that a roundabout has been thought about, for once.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Sheela na gig

A number of readers of the previous post have asked – via comments, email, or conversation – about Kilpeck’s most famous carving, the female corbel known as the Sheela na gig. Though I have no simple answer to what she is doing here – no one knows quite why pious masons of the 12th century should put such a carving on a church – I’d like to share her never-to-be-forgotten image with you and, startling, plain, explicit as she may be, not gloss over her or evade her as earlier generations must have done.

The Victorians indeed, who found it difficult to cope with such things, apparently removed some of the Kilpeck corbels because they couldn’t stomach such explicit images. But tucked away in the angle between chancel and apse, the Sheela survived. If 19th-century prudes needed to justify the survival, they had ways of reinterpreting the obvious. Years ago, for example, I was doing some work involving frequent trips to the British Museum, where one of the curators showed me the way some of the collection for which he was responsible had been documented in the 19th century. An old record card referring to a statuette of a woman, presumably a fertility goddess, holding up her large breasts in her hands bore the legend, ‘Woman carrying two heavy objects.’ How true, and how wrong.

One Victorian writer about Kilpeck took a still broader detour around reality. G R Lewis, whose mostly useful Illustrations of Kilpeck Church were published in 1842, described the Sheela thus in his survey of the corbels: ‘No 26 represents a fool – the cut in his chest, the way to his heart, denotes it is always open and to all alike.’

Well, church crawlers (especially in Ireland, but in Britain many other places in Europe too) get used to encountering Sheelas, though few this side of the Irish Sea are as well preserved as Kilpeck’s. The possible explanations are several, and are neatly summed up in the current guidebook to the church by James Bailey: ‘A device to ward off evil spirits, a fertility cult figure, a representation of the Great Earth Mother Goddess, a Celtic goddess of creation and destruction, an obscene hag, a sexual stimulant, a medieval Schandbild to castigate the sins of the flesh.’

In a medieval context, perhaps the last explanation is the most plausible. The carvings on the exteriors of medieval churches often portray grotesques, monsters, and the like, as a depiction of and warning against the sins and perils of the world, which we leave behind on entering the sacred, spiritual space inside the building. The Sheela could be part of that worldly community and a warning to sinners. Equally, she could well be a survivor from an earlier culture, a fertility figure most probably, kept on in this Christian context in the way in which one religion will preserve or co-opt some of the symbols of a predecessor. And I’d like to think, too, that medieval carvers were quite capable of knowing that their images could have more than one interpretation, just as we do.

Another interesting thing about the Sheela, and one that you won’t find in the guides and learned articles, is that she has a literature of her own – not the scholarly literature but a rich imaginative literature, having inspired poems by, amongst others, Seamus Heaney, Frances Horovitz, and D. M. Thomas, and prose by B. S. Johnson. These writings (many written for a publication called The Kilpeck Anthology published by the Five Seasons Press) are too rich and various to do justice to here. Heaney comes up with resonant images (‘Her hands holding herself | Are like hands in an old outhouse | Holding a bag open’) that take the poet back to his roots in the Irish countryside and bring us to the idea of fertility again (the bag is full of grain). Anne Stevenson looks back to Jewish lore, and, incidentally, to the humour of many of the Kilpeck carvings (‘This is where God first laughed | and created Lilith’). Nearly all the writers (Jeff Nuttall: ‘She is old in stone’; Fleur Adcock: ‘There was always witchcraft here, you say’) see her as something more ancient than this ancient church. B. S. Johnson traces her back to Egypt and to the prehistoric Beaker People. The meanings of the Sheela na gig are rich and varied, now as ever.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Virtuoso carvings

Last week I went to Herefordshire to show some friends one of my favourite buildings, the parish church at Kilpeck. It rained, and the local countryside, already sodden, took on a dark beauty all its own, the contrast between wet green grass and red soil and stone as powerful as ever. The light wasn’t ideal for photography, though, so the pictures are from an earlier trip.

The church of Saints Mary and David, Kilpeck, was built in the 12th century, probably the 1130s, and survives intact with very few later alterations. It is the best place to go to look at the sculpture of the extraordinary ‘Herefordshire school’, whose work is scattered through many Norman churches in the county and in parts of neighbouring Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, but is seen in its most concentrated form in Kilpeck’s small church, which is both well preserved and stunningly decorated.

The 12th-century Herefordshire sculptors produced carvings not only of saints and priests, but also of animals, monsters, and grotesques. Their work is capable of both stylish simplicity and complex detail, high seriousness and earthy humour, and it encompasses huge fonts, Kilpeck’s elaborate doorway, carved shafts and panels, and small, often humorous corbels. The photographs here show part of the doorway and a few of the corbels, which depict a range of subjects from real animals and musicians to mythical beasts.

Scholars have detected Celtic, French, Spanish, and Scandinavian influences in the Herefordshire carvings. The Scandinavian element may come via the Normans’ Viking heritage, the western French and Spanish from a trip made by local pilgrims through France to Compostela. The synthesis, though, carved in the red sandstone so typical of the area, is pure Herefordshire.

If I get the chance to return to Kilpeck in better weather I will post more photographs of this building. But meanwhile, most of the sculptures on the church can be seen here.

Kilpeck, a selection of corbels

Kilpeck, south doorway, drawing by G R Lewis, 1840

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bishopsgate Churchyard, London

Desirable alien (1)

The Ottoman architects of Turkey, famous the world over for vast domed mosques covered in polychrome tiles, were also masters of small buildings. Little pavilions and kiosks, intricately carved tombs, structures sheltering fountains – all, in years gone by, have been given the kind of ornate treatment that in Europe is more often reserved for a place of worship or for the most exclusive of shops.

It’s a wonderful shock, therefore, to come across this tiny late-19th century Turkish pavilion in a paved courtyard in the City. It began life as part of a Turkish bath with a design that wonderfully put the fashion of the time for tile and terracotta decoration to a use foreign to London but apt for the building’s purpose. Thanks to committed supporters, the structure has survived against all the odds, in the face of changing bathing tastes, the Blitz, and office developers. It now forms one of the most memorable settings for a restaurant in central London.

Almost completely hemmed in by the glass-and-steel modernism of the late-20th century, this Turkish pavilion is a brilliant and welcome blast from the past. Thanks to colourful tiles, ornate terracotta, and stained-glass windows, it more than holds its own in its rather bleak setting, and is clearly something of an oasis – it was full of City gents getting outside a morning coffee when I passed by.

There are more photographs of this wonderful little building in More London Peculiars by Peter Ashley, of Unmitigated England.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bredon, Worcestershire


‘Where do you thinking you’re going?’ asked Alan Bennett, taking on cliché-ridden sermons in Beyond the Fringe and implying that a swift trip out of the back of the railway station without showing a ticket could turn into a journey to the bad place. Looking at this scene in the middle of Bredon in Worcestershire reminded me of such directional questions. In the Middle Ages, when St Giles’ church behind the trees was built, most people did not travel very far at all, until the hoped-for final journey to meet their maker; church spires pointed upwards, towards heaven, the one direction that mattered. By the time the rationalist 18th century came along, things were different. Industry was expanding, and with it trade and the necessary roads – and we needed road signs to guide us and tell us how far it was to the next town.

It wasn’t quite as simple at that, of course. In the Middle Ages, some people – pilgrims, masons, those fighting during wartime – did make long journeys. And road improvement was beginning well before the industrial revolution took hold. But it’s still true that many of our early road signs – milestones, fingerposts, and fancy obelisks like this one of 1808 – date from the 18th and early-19th centuries, the time when the turnpike trusts were building and maintaining roads and charging people tolls for the privilege of travelling on them.

There was plenty of turnpike activity in southern Worcestershire in the 18th century, though I’ve not been able to establish who put up this obelisk with its happy combination of stone and cast iron. It’s one that’s not so strong on directions – there are no arrows and, unlike some obelisks, this one does not use its faces to indicate the direction of different places.

But for all its shortcomings, the obelisk is a visual asset to this village rich in visual assets. And it does give mileages to half a dozen local towns – from nearby Tewkesbury to more distant Evesham. So after 1808 travellers through Bredon knew where they were in the scheme of things. They could decide whether to pull in at Tewkesbury for the night or carry on to Upton on Severn – and if quizzed by the parson about their destination they could come up with a credible answer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cote, Oxfordshire

Rural restraint

In around 1703, a group of Baptists from Longworth near Kingston Bagpuize in Oxfordshire acquired some land across the Thames at Cote and built a new chapel there. A few decades later, probably during the 1750s, they enlarged the chapel to create this lovely building with its symmetrical front (the bush conceals a second doorway), plain window openings, and truncated gable.

This building marks what I think of as the second phase of nonconformist worship in England. In the 17th century it had been against the law for dissenters from the Church of England to gather in their own places of worship. They could face penalties both for not attending church and for holding illegal meetings of their own. As a result, nonconformists met in studied obscurity – in people’s houses in isolated country spots and in obscure town buildings up quiet alleys.

In 1689 the Toleration Act granted certain non-Anglicans the right to assemble for worship under certain conditions – they had to register their places of worship, swear allegiance to the monarch (this ruled out Quakers, who swear no oaths, from the benefits of the Act), and to reject the doctrine of transubstantiation (this ruled out Catholics). The Act meant that Protestant groups such as the Baptists could worship more publicly, and build proper chapels for themselves. Hence buildings like this one.

John Piper thought the chapel at Cote one of the most beautiful buildings in Oxfordshire. I suspect that he liked, as I do, its combination of local materials and chaste symmetry – there’s a very English restraint about it, as there is about many early chapels. The setting is delightful too, amongst trees and headstones, some of which go back to the 18th century to remind us of the first Baptists who came here and raised this simple, fitting building amongst the fields and farms.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Snowshill, Gloucestershire

Memories of summer

Having returned from a dry but chilly Czech Republic to an England dampened by winter rain in full spate, I felt that I needed a memory of summer. So here's a picture of one of the lavender fields that paint the landscape around Snowshill, high in the North Cotswolds, with their special and evocative colour. Many fields round here are still bounded by their traditional Cotswold drystone walls, structures held together without mortar by the skill of the waller in selecting and placing appropriately shaped chunks of limestone. Many people don't realise, though, that some humble buildings – farm buildings, especially – also have drystone walls.

This example is a case in point. No doubt it was once roofed with Cotswold stone 'slates' too, but these have been replaced with corrugated iron. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a weakness for this humble sheeting, which ranks right at the bottom of the conventional pecking-order of building materials. Satisfying as a stone roof would be, I can also find a place in my heart for this iron roof covering, for the practical solution it offers when the investment required for the older material is simply too great – and even for the rich colour of its rust.

If you think the eye of this beholder is eccentric in finding beauty in the rusty roof, enjoy the flowers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pirton, Worcestershire

Art of oak

This is the unusual church tower I mentioned in the previous post. There are not many timber-framed church towers around, but Worcestershire, one of those western counties where timber-framed buildings are quite common, has a few. Even so, encountering this one a real surprise, not least because the church is way outside its village, so the black and white tower rears up in contrast to a background of russet trees and green and brown fields.

The wooden frame of St Peter’s, Pirton, has a profusion of uprights or studs – what timber-frame specialists refer to as ‘close-studding’. This is a form of framework most common in southeast England, but it is used in the West Midlands for high-status buildings (put up by people who could afford the oak and the skilled labour) and where the structure warrants it. It suits a tall building, giving it plenty of strength when combined with the flanking structures, almost like miniature aisles, with their sloping crucks that brace the building. These putative aisles are also unusual, although Pevsner points out that there are similar structures flanking church towers in Essex.

How old is it? This can be a difficult question with timber-framed buildings, where there is often little of the stylistic evidence that helps us to date stone buildings. The details of carpentry that can sometimes help date wooden buildings haven’t helped here, and estimates range from the 14th to the 16th century.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pirton, Worcestershire

In the mist

On my way to find an unusual church tower I was driving through quiet country in Worcestershire now sandwiched between the M5 and the railway line that links Cheltenham and Bristol to the Midlands and the north. I rounded a bend and caught sight of this ruin hugging a hillside next to some trees.

Glimpsed through the mist like this it could easily be a forgotten fragment of medieval castle wall with one mural tower still clinging on. But it’s not medieval at all. It’s actually one of several eyecatchers erected in the countryside around the great house of Croome Court, once home of the Earls of Coventry. As well as garden buildings near the great house, there are several of these more distant structures scattered around the nearby countryside, designed either by Robert Adam (who did the interiors of the house in the mid-18th century) or by James Wyatt (who began work on the house and estate in 1792).

This sham ruin is by Wyatt. It is well over a mile from the house and an effective reminder of the size of the Coventry estate. And it was by no means the furthest away. Broadway Tower, a much bigger prospect tower, some 15 miles away, is also one of Lord Coventry’s buildings.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Keeping up appearances

On a recent visit to Stratford I was struck by this substantial town house. The street front is built in a Gothic style, but we’re not in the realm of cathedral Gothic here – this is the fancy, rather feminine style popular in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and often dubbed Gothick. Just the kind of facade that a prosperous townsperson would like to build in order to show they are up-to-date, fashionable, and sophisticated. And a very far cry from what then, even more than now, was the prevailing architectural style in the town – the timber-framed vernacular.

But for all their sophistication, this fashionable householder apparently did not have funds enough for a full rebuild. This is how the house looks when we step back a little and take in the side:

It's as timber-framed and old-world as the next one in Church Street, Stratford. Clearly, no one was fooling anyone with this partial makeover. The side wall of the building is highly visible from the street, and would have been more so when there was no vegetation to hide the join. With its curvaceous ogee-framed windows, battlements, and columned doorway abutting on to a Tudor or late-Medieval structure, it’s a bit of a joke, it’s true. But jokes aren’t all bad.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Embankment, London

Water gate revelation

I used to work in Covent Garden and sometimes, especially in summer, there was a strong temptation to cross the Strand and make for the refreshment provided by Gordon’s Wine Bar in Villiers Street. After a glass or two one could walk back via an architectural detour, through the remains of the Adelphi perhaps, or across the Embankment Gardens, past this monumental gateway, a reminder of a London long gone.

Before the Victoria Embankment was built in 1862, the gateway stood on the river bank. It was built in 1626 as the water gate to York House, home of George Villiers 1st Duke of Buckingham (whose name and title are commemorated in the street names hereabouts). The builder was the appropriately named Nicholas Stone, Buckingham’s master mason and an associate of Inigo Jones, the man who had introduced Palladian architecture to England a few years earlier.

Stone’s water gate is a vigorous, almost restless, design with its banded columns, its big keystones, and its busy cornice jutting in and out. Less restrained than most of Inigo Jones’s rather severe surviving buildings, it seems to look forward to the more baroque style of the late-17th century. And stranded in its garden it looks even odder than it must have done in the 1620s. One up to the London County Council (also long gone) for preserving it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Space invaders

After the church, the chapter house was often the most impressive part of a medieval monastery – especially if that monastery was a house belonging to the Cluniacs, an order who were famous for their ornate buildings. This is part of the chapter house at Wenlock Abbey, which was originally a Saxon monastery but was re-established by the Cluniacs after the Norman conquest.

The monks of Wenlock built their chapter house in about 1140. Every day they met here, entering through a magnificent triple-arched doorway, and sitting down to discuss abbey business and hear a reading of one chapter of the monastic rule. What remains of the interior now is three high stone walls, each decorated with intricate multiple arcading. This kind of decoration, covered with chevron or pellet motifs or with carved mouldings, is a hallmark of the most elaborate late Norman architecture in England.

I photographed the one wall of the three that has plants growing on it. The other two are kept scrupulously clear of vegetation, but here nature is taking its course and the flowers (are they some form of campanula?) grow freely. I’m not sure if this is a conscious decision on the part of the building’s custodians, English Heritage, although I do know that they have approved of this kind of equilibrium between plants and stones at certain sites.

Deliberate or not, I like this modest invasion. The plants don’t seem to be doing any harm to the masonry and the unruly splash of colour they provide is welcome amongst the grey stone and clipped lawns. There is more than one way to display a ruin, and old buildings are hospitable to other species than our own.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wroxeter, Shropshire

What the Romans did for us

The Romans – and those among the British who adopted the Roman way of life during the occupation – built a great deal. But most of their buildings in Britain, if they survive at all, do so as ruins a foot or two high. For example, only a few full-size Roman arches remain in Britain, and even Hadrian’s Wall, in all its windswept magnificence, is a shadow of its original self. The remains of a Roman town like Wroxeter, which survive as an acre or two of foundation and hypocaust, and a section of high wall, are impressive. But much more has vanished. Where on earth did it all go?

Well, some at least of the stone and brick was recycled. I have seen Roman bricks incorporated into the structures of Saxon churches, Norman castles, and gatehouses of uncertain age. The gateway to the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Wroxeter is testimony to just such a case of reuse. The two round stone columns come from the Roman site down the road, an inspired piece of recycling and rejigging - the bases are apparently from Roman farm buildings, the columns themselves from Wroxeter's baths, and the capitals from some other unknown Roman building in the locality. The walls of the church itself, which was first built in the Saxon period, though it has been much altered since, are also partly of stone blocks cut originally by the Romans. The Roman builders and masons did more for us than we sometimes realise.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

The daily round

Many people know about the abbey at Shrewsbury because it features in the Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, and is the home of the eponymous monk. But apart from the church, itself much truncated after the dissolution, little remains of the buildings of Cadfael’s monastery. The church is surrounded by roads, one of which slices its way through the site of the cloister, where the domestic buildings of the monks would have been sited.

This is one tantalizing fragment that has survived. It is a pulpit, and was originally part of the monks’ dining hall or refectory. Monks were expected to eat in silence, the only sound in the refectory being the voice of one brother, who would climb the stairs to the pulpit and read to the others as they ate. The lives of the saints were favoured for mealtime readings.

The ornate pulpit was built in the early-14th century. It is vaulted inside and carefully designed with broad openings, so that the reader could be heard, and small carvings to inspire those who looked up towards it. Cadfael, however, had he really existed, would not have known this delicate piece of stonework – he was a monk of the 12th century. He would probably have known a much plainer, round-arched pulpit, but the regular ritual of readings, like the continuous round of liturgy in the church, would have been the same.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whitecross Street, London

Peabody's buildings

In the last four decades of the 19th century, London faced a housing crisis. The working poor were tied to central London because that was where the jobs were. But even a room or small flat in a central area cost a large proportion of the weekly wage – perhaps more than one third of the income of a family trying to manage on a pound a week. And such a room provided often cramped, ill-maintained, and unsanitary accommodation. Landlords were more interested in the bottom line than in helping tenants, and there were sometimes middlemen, leaseholders who had to make a profit for themselves before passing on the remainder of the rent to the ground landlord. Slums abounded, disease was rife, discomfort the norm.

Before the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 brought down fares, moving to the suburbs, where rents were lower, was out of the question for most whose sole chance of employment was in central London. A few managed by renting a house slightly bigger than they needed and subletting one or two rooms to help pay the rent (some of my own ancestors got by in this way). But even this solution required an income somewhat higher than rock-bottom. So the poor mostly clung on in rookeries of rooms and flats, subdivided houses, and depressing back-to-backs.

A few visionaries looked for ways to improve things. Some started ethical property companies, promising investors a lower return than a slum landlord would expect, and providing decent, modern housing. Still more radical was the British-resident American banker and philanthropist George Peabody, who founded the Peabody Trust in the early 1860s to build and manage housing for the poor.

The Peabody Trust built apartments in multi-storey blocks, designed to offer clean, decent accommodation mostly in one- two- and three-roomed units. They had built just over 5,000 dwellings by 1887, including this block in the Whitecross Street area, one of a number of such buildings south of Old Street and north of the Barbican.

Peabody’s flats were much needed and much appreciated. With their multiple bedrooms, not to mention WCs and laundry rooms, they were much better than the usual rented dwellings of the time. There were plenty of takers, who probably found more space, better hygiene, and lighter rooms than they had had before. It wasn’t all good news, though. Not everyone could afford the rents and many of the poor who were displaced to build the blocks did not find accommodation there. But the flats fulfilled a need, offering decent housing at high density in the centre of town.

From today’s perspective, the flats, with their austere rows of windows and high walls relieved only with a little striped brickwork look somewhat forbidding. Inside, the one example I’ve been in seemed very cramped by modern standards. They compare well with many a 1960s or 1970s flat, though, and they are still fulfilling a need. Today Peabody manages around 20,000 homes in London, making it possible for some 50,000 people to live near the centre of the capital.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Old St Pancras Churchyard, London

Soane box

Round the back of the refurbished and extended St Pancras station lies a secluded garden made up of the Old St Giles' burial ground and the churchyard of St Pancras, a quiet spot shaded by plane trees. Apart from two men sweeping leaves I had the place to myself, and I was certainly the only person there interested in making a pilgrimage to this small but oddly influential English building, the mausoleum of the great architect Sir John Soane and his family.

It's a typical Soane structure in its very personal Classicism, its handling of spaces and layers, its shallow dome, and its symbolism. His wife having died in 1815, Soane conceived this building in the following year. It is a series of layers. Innermost is a large chunk of Carrara marble; this is roofed by a small marble structure consisting of four Ionic columns and a canopy; this in turn is covered by a larger structure in Portland stone with a shallow dome; the whole is surrounded by a low wall. The dome's finial is a pine cone (a Classical symbol of renewal) surrounded by a snake swallowing its tail (symbolizing eternity).

The monument is a fascinating bringing-outdoors of several of Soane's interior obsessions – domes, narrow spaces, those segmental slivers beneath the dome, the symbolic language, and so on. It's arresting, seems simple until you examine the careful and complex art with which it's put together, is completely non-Christian, and very typical of its architect's vision. Soane, though, deeply in mourning for his wife and troubled by domestic arrangements and disputes over her effects, found it hard to visit the monument once it was up.

Architectural pilgrims, however, have no such qualms. No doubt one of the most admiring was Giles Gilbert Scott, whose classic design for the red telephone box seems to have been heavily influenced by the monument. How odd that this rarified and personal design should have inspired the creation of something so universal, that the language of mourning should be translated into a symbol of communication. Such are the anxieties of architectural influence, and such are their satisfactions.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Calmsden, Gloucestershire

Six of the best

This row of houses in a Cotswold hamlet is, like most traditional buildings on the Cotswolds, built of local oolitic limestone. Classicists among you will recognise in the word ‘oolitic’ Greek words for ‘egg’ and ‘stone’. Oolitic limestone (or oolite for short) is made up of millions of tiny round, egg-like fragments, each of which consists of a roughly spherical build-up of calcium carbonate around a core. It makes one of the most beautiful of English building stones and buildings in this material grace towns and villages running in a belt right across the country from Dorset to Lincolnshire.

As with most Cotswold cottages, limestone makes up almost the whole structure: there are limestone walls, limestone ‘slates’ on the roof, and little limestone-roofed dormer windows. But two distinctive features make this row of probably early-19th century cottages stand out. The first is the hexagon-pattern glazing. Although unusual this is seen on several buildings in this and the neighbouring village and is presumably the ‘house style’ of a local estate. The other feature is the little white porches. Many cottages have small wooden porches protecting the front door. But these have elegant curved roofs made, of all materials, of corrugated iron. Limestone and corrugated iron: an unusual combination, but it works.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Abthorpe, Northamptonshire

The long view

To build is to be optimistic. You are investing time, money, and effort in an unknown future. To build during a time of war entails an extra dose of optimism, of bravery even. Relatively few major buildings (big houses, churches, and so on) were put up during the English Civil War, and those that were are still pointed out and cherished.

Hats off, then (tall, Puritan hats or saucy feathered Cavalier titfers) to Northamptonshire spinster Jane Leeson, who built a school for the children of her village of Abthorpe in 1642, as the first phase of the Civil War began. She nailed her colours to the mast, placing this inscription on the front of the building:


That round and optimistic declaration was placed smack in the middle of the facade beneath the dormer window. Here it remains, although it's not in the middle any more because the right-hand portion of the building, with its big gable, is a later, harmonious, addition.

The lovely two-tone stripes of local stone have worn well so far, justifying Miss Leeson’s confidence, the warm, toffee-coloured marlstone and paler oolite combining well as in so many villages of southern Northamptonshire. The stone-mullioned windows too help make this building an adornment to its end of the village. The building is not a school any more, but, used as a village hall, its service to the community continues.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

More light!

Here’s the Round Tower lighthouse at Burnham, or what’s left of it, for all that remains is the tower’s truncated stump, attached to the white building on the left, which faces on to the sea front.

Apparently the light had humble origins. A fisherman lived in a cottage somewhere near this spot in the mid-18th century, and his wife got into the habit of lighting a candle and leaving it at one of the windows to guide her husband home. Later the light was placed in the nearby church tower, so that it could be seen from further out at sea. Finally the curate of the church built the round tower – next to the churchyard, as can be seen in the photograph – so that the light was clearer still.

Even in its original tall form it wasn’t that high, and in 1832 it was replaced by the subsequent lights, so that shipping might be guided more reliably home, either to Burnham itself, or on up the River Parrett to the port of Bridgwater.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

Attention all shipping

I normally leave this kind of thing to Peter Ashley, over at the excellent Unmitigated England, a fine photographer of lighthouses as of much else. He would not have parked at the far end of the sea front, leaving himself with a twenty-minute walk across a deserted beach in a stiff wind blowing tons of dry sand in a landward direction. A few hundredweight of this sand lodged itself in my nostrils and ears, more of it sandblasting my face and probably my camera lens too.

But in the end, buffeted and battered, I made it to the Low Light, Burnham’s sea-shore lighthouse on poles. This unusual structure was built in 1832. It was the third lighthouse in the town, replacing the Round Tower slightly inland, which now survives at half its original height, and complementing the High Light, a more conventional pillar lighthouse not far away.

On its nine timber posts it has held up very well, surviving both the Round Tower and the High Light, which blinked its last in 1993. The staircase is a recent replacement in galvanized steel. It takes the same form as the original wooden stair, but has openwork treads so that the load of water pressure on the structure is not so great at high tide. A light is still displayed through the window at the side of the Low Light, so it remains useful to shipping as well as a notable landmark for those walkers who are rash enough to brave the Burnham breeze.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wixford, Warwickshire

Inspecting Wixford

Following those narrow lanes in villages signposted ‘To the church’ is one of my pastimes, and I’m never quite sure what, apart from the church of course, I’m likely to find. In Wixford, having negotiated a Range Rover and a horse in a narrow, deeply sunken lane with minimal passing places, I found the churchyard. And in the corner near the gate was this: the horse house.

Apparently from the 18th century on, Wixford had no resident parish clergy, so a parson from a neighbouring village had to ride over of a Sunday. The thoughtful parishioners of Wixford provided this little stable for his mount to rest and chew over its oats while they sat in the church and chewed over the sermon.

As if that’s not odd enough, the gorse-and-hurdle walls and thatched roof of this unassuming but charming little building are a real surprise. I half expected one of those Morris dancers dressed as a bush to emerge from the doorway. But the horse house was unoccupied and quiet: only the breeze on the gorse and in the churchyard hedge ruffled the summer afternoon calm.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Clifford Chambers, Warwickshire

Place in the sun

Clifford Manor is at one end of the main street of a village nor far from Stratford-upon-Avon. A timber-framed house of the 15th or 16th century on the site was remodelled in 1903–9, but this building was badly damaged in a fire in 1918. Edwin Lutyens was called in to repair the house, and he and Gertrude Jekyll are also said to be responsible for the gardens.

I don’t know how much of the house as it stands today is Lutyens’ work, but this façade is certainly something he could have designed, taking the familiar English country-house look and giving it individuality with features such as the oeils de boeuf and small triangular pediment.

This house is not open to the public, so I felt privileged to get a glimpse of it. Lutyens designed and modified a lot of country houses, but so many of them are tucked away down long drives or hidden by trees. It’s good that this one, its bricks glowing in the late-afternoon sun, forms such a visual asset to its quiet village of timber-framed and brick houses.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Clevedon, Somerset

Back on track

The pier at Clevedon sits on top of hard limestone and mud in water with a dramatic tidal range of about 46 feet and currents up to 5 knots. This made building it a real challenge – the team of men on the job in 1867–69 took three months to build one of the 100-foot spans, although some of the other spans went much faster.

But it was worth the effort. They achieved one of the most elegant pier structures, with a series of delicate arches made of recycled rails from the defunct South-West Railway. The rather pagoda-like pavilions at the seaward end add to the effect and provide welcome shelter in the stiff Severn breezes.

Like many of our piers, the one at Clevedon was looking past its best by the 1960s and structural engineers recommended testing it every two years to make sure it was still safe. So the pier was regularly subjected to a rigorous loading with tanks of water and in October 1970 the structure collapsed during one of these tests.

For years the pier languished unrestored, and potential costs mounted as the need for further repairs became apparent. But at last, in 1989 the pier reopened and the entire restoration project was completed in 1998. The reborn pier was a triumph for local fundraising and effort plus grant-aid and the repair process was helped further by the lucky discovery of some of the old South-West rails in storage. A fine end for a fine pier.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Clevedon, Somerset

Watering place

In spite of the two previous brewery posts, I have a liking for small structures. I’m also an admirer of the work of the Doulton ceramics company, especially the wares that they produced in their Lambeth factory on the south bank of the Thames and that are often used as facing on buildings. So I was pleased, visiting Clevedon to look at the pier, to come across this, surely one of the smallest of listed structures, a Doulton drinking fountain erected by a Mr Sheldon in 1895.

As well as their large and lucrative business in domestic pottery (everything from vases to beer jugs, ash trays to loving cups), Doultons made all kinds of goods connected with the supply of water – plain earthenware pipes, more decorative jugs, water filters, drinking fountains, and so on and on. This one is typical of their wares of the 1890s – some flowers and foliage hinting at Art Nouveau, a pleasant and rich palette of greens, blues, and browns, a profusion of architectural decorations, from the plain base to the fancy finial. Altogether a refreshing surprise.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Devizes, Wiltshire

Beer and behemoths

Whenever someone decides to put up a new building in the middle of one of our historic towns and villages, the temperature of the inhabitants is apt to rise. New buildings are seen by many as a threat, and the greatest threat of all is posed by buildings that don’t ‘fit in’. People recognize certain key elements that buildings contribute to the character of a place – elements such as style, scale, and materials. A city like Bath, for example, is dominated by Georgian architecture no more than a few storeys tall, most of it faced with local limestone; a tall modernist skyscraper made of concrete would look out place there. And if someone came along with plans for a house made of concrete blocks in a Cotswold town, or a gigantic brick tower in a Warkwickshire ‘black and white’ village, or a creation in glass and steel amongst the weatherboard and brick of the rural southeast, hackles would rise.

Devizes, this conventional wisdom goes, is a stone-built market town. The houses and shops of its central streets are mostly three storeys or less, and the character of the place owes much to creamy limestone – and a bit of matching pale render here and there. What, then, are we to make of the brick-built behemoth at the end of the market place – not a new building but certainly not one that blends into the townscape? At around twice the height of the neighbouring houses and several times the width, this monster ought to have destroyed the town centre. But I don’t think it has. I think it makes a positive contribution to the town centre (and not just because of the beer it produces, to which I have a certain attachment, because the first pint I ever drank was a pint of Wadworth’s).

The Northgate Brewery in Devizes was designed by the firm’s proprietor, Henry Wadsworth, and completed in 1885. It’s functional – the large-scale brewing process called for generous height and a big footprint. And its red bricks were no doubt economical. It was a practical building, then, that must have pleased its original owners. But what do other people think about it? Alec Clifton-Taylor (in Another Six English Towns) found it ‘perhaps a little overpowering, but…undeniably a building of character’. John Piper praised it in Buildings and Prospects. Pevsner (in the first edition of his Wiltshire) reserved judgement, alliteratively noting the ‘big brick brewery’.

Not for the first time, I find myself with Alec Clifton-Taylor. It is a bit overpowering, especially close-to. But architecture is not only about blending in to the surroundings. It's also about standing out. And seen from the other side of the market place the brewery certainly does stand out, even though its red colour also echoes the mellower Georgian bricks of the non-stone houses that are scattered here and there. For Devizes is not simply a stone town. It’s on the edge of the stone country and bricks find their place here too, just as there is a place for beer as well as wine in the town’s many watering-holes. Devizes is diverse and big enough to accommodate its brewery, and be the better for it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shepton Mallet, Somerset

Amber nectar

This 1880s building, trying to look like a French palace with the addition of an Italianate chimney, began life as the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, Shepton Mallet. It once had two towers, topped with pavilion roofs, that made it look even more French and palatial, but it’s still one of the most prominent buildings in the town.

The enterprise it was built to house was an interesting one. In 1872, what had been the Pale Ale Brewery took on a number of brewers from Bavaria and they began to brew lager – it’s said they were the first in this country to do so. To emphasize the uniqueness of their products, the company changed its name to the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery. It prospered, and exported the beers widely, especially to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other outposts of the British empire.

The brewery was rebuilt in 1881 in the Second Empire form it takes today, one of the great ornamental breweries of the late-19th century, with the company name emblazoned in the pediment. The architect is not known, but the firm was proud of its building and put the brewery’s image on its bottle labels, as brewers often did in the early-20th century. People liked the beer too, the ‘Celebrated Amber Ale’ as they called it, and it garnered prizes in Europe and Australia. No doubt the Bavarian input helped.

But at the time of World War I it didn’t do for a British company to have a German connection, and stockists removed the unpatriotic bottles from their displays. The business declined and although there was an inter-war revival under new owners it was too late. After the World War II the building became the Anglo Trading Estate. And so, for the moment, it remains, although there are plans for redevelopment. It’s listed, though, so will keep its status as a much-loved local landmark.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Birmingham Moor Street

Almost old, almost new

One wet Friday recently I found myself with a few minutes on my hands in the middle of Birmingham and I decided to peer inside Moor Street station. Its gabled brick structure is a standard design of the old GWR, created by their Superintendent Engineer W Y Armstrong in 1911–1914 as a kind of detached annexe to the nearby Snow Hill station, and acted as a terminus for trains from Warwickshire. It was good to see that the old building had been restored in 2002–3, and was still looking well cared for with its GWR brown paint, historically aware signage, and modern buffet facilities that don’t dominate the concourse too much.

Nowadays trains go from some more recent platforms to one side of the original station, from where they still make for Warwickshire destinations such as Stratford upon Avon, as well as London. Steam-hauled excursions depart on summer Sundays and a locomotive stands at one of the old platforms as a reminder.

This view of the station looks across the original platforms towards a building of our own era – Future Systems’ dramatic, blob-like, aluminium-disc-covered, Selfridge’s. This building is now well enough known to be no longer shocking. It’s such a familiar symbol of the rejuvenated centre of Birmingham, indeed, that the overused word ‘iconic’ has been applied to it a few times too often. It’s still a surprise to come across in this context, though, and as odd as the contrast between the steam locomotive standing insouciantly at the platform and the modern, advertisement-emblazoned omnibus beyond. The almost-shock of the nearly-new.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dorchester, Oxfordshire

More nogging

Sorting through my photographs of Dorchester after doing the previous post, I found this image of yet more elaborate brick nogging. It is on the front of the White Hart Hotel, an interesting-looking building, one of many in this small but fascinating Oxfordshire town that has no doubt been remodelled and modified over many centuries.

The entry in Pevsner’s Oxfordshire in his Buildings of England series notes the date in the brickwork, but suggests that the building is much older than 1691. Probably the timber frame was put up long before this date and the infill replaced with brickwork in 1691, different-coloured bricks being used to bring out the pattern and the numerals. If so, this is an example of how one should never treat a date on a building at face value – it’s as likely to commemorate a restoration or remodelling as the original date of the building.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Much ado about nogging

England’s ‘black and white’ houses, their dark timber frames infilled with panels of pale wattle and daub, are well known. But there are also lots of timber-framed buildings in which the gaps between the timbers are filled with bricks, a technique known as nogging. Nogging can be very attractive, especially when the bricks are laid in a pattern such as basket-weave or, as here in Dorchester, herringbone.

Brick nogging seems to have become popular in the Tudor period and retained its popularity in the 17th century. It’s not ideal structurally – the extra weight of the bricks could cause the timbers to bow and differences in the rates of expansion and contraction could lead to cracks. But bricks were highly fashionable in the Tudor and Stuart periods, and when wattle and daub panels needed replacing, many house owners seem to have followed fashion.

It’s hard to blame them, especially as they were using beautiful hand-made bricks with all their rich variations in colour. But of course, brick panels sometimes needed replacing too. No doubt maintenance and changes in window sizes resulted in some of the herringbone panels of this house being replaced with horizontally laid bricks. Those that remain, though, add wonderfully to the texture and colour of this handsome Oxfordshire street.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

A world of wet

Although in my mind July 2007 stands out as the month I began this blog, here in Gloucestershire that month has other, more sinister resonances. July 2007 was the month of the great floods when in Tewkesbury and other parts of the county thousands were forced out of their homes by the rising water, roads were impassable, and Tewkesbury’s Mythe Water Treatment Works flooded, depriving 140,000 people of running water for a fortnight.

For those directly affected, the floods were devastating – for most, cleaning up, drying out, and rebuilding took more than a year, and two years on there are still people putting the finishing touches to their repairs. In the town where I live, on the edge of the Cotswolds, we’re not much used to flooding and sights such as a four-foot deep torrent of water rushing down a hill sweeping away all its path, traffic made up of Land Rovers towing dinghies and bowsers, or the acrid tidewash of mud, gravel, and debris, were unfamiliar. Tewkesbury, on the other hand, is a river town, at the confluence of the Severn and Avon. It’s used to being surrounded by waterlogged fields. But not to this overwhelming inundation.

The centre of the old town, the knot of streets and alleys to the north and east of the abbey, usually escapes the worst. This was the first time since the 18th century that flood water had entered the abbey itself. The picture shows the building during a more typical flood, with water covering the nearby meadows, but the large medieval church still dry. The central tower, probably the greatest of England’s Norman towers, and much of the rest of the building, dates from 1087–1123; other parts of the church date from a partial remodelling in the 14th century.

During that long history, this building that has seen its fair share of mishaps – the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 during the Wars of the Roses; the dissolution, when the church was saved because the town bought it from Henry VIII (for £453) so that they could use it as their parish church; a restoration in the 1870s that threatened the fabric so profoundly that William Morris was inspired to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in1877. It survived all this, and survived 2007 too.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Leominster, Herefordshire

The building formerly known as… (1)

Every so often I find myself in a strange town admiring a bank. Not, I try and convince myself, in a nostalgic spirit of longing (‘Those were the days when banks were banks, when bankers lent money they really had to people who could actually afford to repay it’). After all, I’m far from certain that the image of solidity so often created by Victorian and Edwardian bank buildings necessarily reflected the financial security of the institutions inside. We sometimes forget that things changed rapidly in the 19th century too.

Here’s Lloyds, with its doorway as solid and classical as they come, on Corn Square in Leominster. But it wasn’t always Lloyds, as becomes clear when we crane our necks on entering. It was the Worcester City and County Banking Company until 1889, when Lloyds took them over. But they weren’t over-eager to bury the history, having the old name carved in deep block letters above the door in a rather odd position, but clear for all to see.

I’m not sure when this was done, but the doorway with its columns punctuated by bold stone blocks (rusticated columns, in archispeak) is the kind of thing that appeared on grand buildings in the classical style during the decades on either side of 1900 – so soon after the takeover, perhaps. There’s quite a lot to admire here – I especially like the way the word ‘BANK’ fits into the spaces in the frieze above the door, and the way the blocks around the arch match those in the columns. All balance and order, then: a bank for its times, and, let’s hope, for our own.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Settle, North Yorkshire

Photograph courtesy of The Gallery on the Green

The Gallery on the Green

Red telephone boxes are not as thick on the ground as they once were. There were two classic designs, both the creations of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and Battersea Power Station. The first, the K2, appeared in 1929. Its Soane-inspired domed roof and red paintwork were instantly recognisable, but the boxes were heavy and costly, so a competition was run for a more economical design to commemorate George V’s Silver Jubilee in1935, and Scott produced the K6, which is smaller and lighter but still red and domed. Tens of thousands were made, but many were replaced from the 1960s on with more modern designs. Now the rise and rise of the mobile phone means that many more are simply disappearing.

In response to those who mourn the demise of the red box, BT has launched a scheme called Adopt a Kiosk. Local communities can buy a box for a token sum, find a new use for it, and take responsibility for its maintenance. The kiosk, minus its payphone, remains in situ, as a visual amenity, for future generations. Settle Town Council bought this K6 kiosk earlier this year and it has now begun its new role as a visual amenity in more than one sense of the word – as well as remaining an attractive piece of street furniture it is now also the Gallery on the Green, probably the smallest art gallery in the world. Its curators invite postcard-sized submissions and plan to select some for exhibition in the gallery as well as scanning some so that they can be displayed on the gallery website for the benefit of those who can’t actually visit Settle.

This is a lovely idea, one that recycles what would have been a redundant kiosk and will provide a changing visual display that can stimulate, delight, and charm. It needs its committed support in the shape of the local volunteers who run the gallery. And it deserves the support of the rest of us. And perhaps imitation too. How long before there are more phone kiosk galleries, or before people find other creative uses for these beloved red boxes – uses that can delight, provoke, or inspire us all?

For more about the Gallery, go here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Paddington Street, London

First and last

The background to this little building is outlined on a helpful board nearby. Paddington Street Gardens originated in the 18th century as a burial ground for the parish church of St Martylebone. The land was granted to the parish by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, in 1730 and the burial ground was opened in 1733. There were few burials after 1814, when the St John’s Wood burial ground was opened, and subsequently most of the headstones were removed and the land turned into a park. But this mausoleum was left in place. It was built by the Hon Richard Fitzpatrick for his wife, who died in 1759, aged just 30. Later his daughter was buried there too.

So much for the history. But what made me notice this small building, aside from its fine lines and the large urn acting as an outsize finial and funerary symbol, is the way it works in its setting. The pale stone building acts as a focus in this enclave of plane trees, lawns. and flowers. And as if to confirm that, the gardeners have attached hanging baskets, so that plants and stones, soft and hard landscaping, come together. This winning combination is typical of graveyards, where the seasonal round of flower and leaf acts in counterpoint to the theme of last things, turning our thoughts from death to the renewal of life. In Paddington Street Gardens, the mausoleum and its vivid flowers ensure that this process is re-enacted year by year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The kindness of strangers

Birthday time. This blog has been going for two years now, and there seems to be no let up in the steady flow of architectural encounters I want to share. But the architectural surprises and delights are only part of the pleasure that I’ve had from two years of blogging. A friend I see about once a year asked how the blog was going. ‘And the comments,’ she asked. ‘Do they come from people you know, or from others?’
‘Both,’ I replied. ‘But quite a few from people I don’t know.’
‘From strangers?’ she said.

Yes, from strangers. And I’ve been impressed and enlightened by the generosity of those who’ve bothered to comment, filling in the gaps in my knowledge or just sharing a joke. I’ve benefited from fascinating information about architects such as Montague Wheeler, designer of Rudolf Steiner house in London, about the background to some relief carvings by Frederick Schenk in Harley Street, about the story of the anarchist settlement of Whiteway in Gloucestershire. I’ve had interesting email exchanges too about topics ranging from the lovely illustrated book The Map That Came To Life to the recent history of the Oxfordshire village of Great Tew and locations used in the TV series Foyle’s War. And friends as well as strangers have supplied me with all kinds of anecdotes – historical, topical, and personal – about the buildings I’ve featured and related topics.

This kind of thing is important to a writer. All too often, you write some text, it’s edited and published, and, if you’re very lucky, you get the odd decent review. But very rarely feedback from a reader. They’re on to the next book long before they can write an email, let alone find the publisher’s address, write a letter, and get down to the post box. We all have a life, after all. But meanwhile, the writer might as well be stuck on top of a mountain in Greece.

Well, if you do live on a mountain in Greece, hospitality is likely to be one of your guiding values. As the great Patrick Leigh Fermor pointed out, this is partly based on ‘a genuine and deep-seated kindness, the feeling of pity and charity toward a stranger who is far from his home’. But, as he also says, there’s an intellectual reason for it too. Strangers bring news, and the eager questioning of travellers (‘Are you married? Are your mother and father alive? What country are you from? – do you live in the capital or outside? Did you come on foot? …Do you know an Englishman called David who was here a few years ago?’) comes from a real interest and a desire to connect with others.

The instant comment system of blogging may not be quite as intoxicating as a long chat into the Peloponnesian night over bottles of resiny wine, but I hope it is hospitable, at least, and that this whole enterprise helps to fuel people’s interest and satisfy their curiosity. As we feed back effortlessly, we all learn a bit more and, often as not, are entertained into the bargain. So, as they say in Parliament, ‘Hat’s off, strangers!’ for telling me more than I could have hoped. And hats off to the rest of you too.